Status of panic button: pressed, and it’s not just the Washington Post that sees it. After the collapse of the Iowa Democratic caucuses and perhaps the prospects of their heir presumptive Joe Biden, the 2020 battleground is starting to look like Dieppe more than Normandy for Democrats. And that was before Donald Trump delivered a disciplined and conventional State of the Union, with Nancy Pelosi’s freak-out at the end:
President Trump, on the cusp of acquittal by the Senate and with the highest approval rating of his tenure, marched newly emboldened into the State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The Democratic Party’s presidential primary has descended into chaos, with early figures showing that its onetime front-runner, a once-formidable former vice president, is politically wounded.
The Democratic five-alarm fire has begun.
Around the country on Tuesday, Democrats found themselves baffled by the circumstances engulfing their party — even one that is known for, and sometimes takes pride in, its tendency to overreact with worry. …
Democrats, after three-plus miserable years under Trump, hoped this would be a turning point, with the president facing impeachment for allegedly abusing his power and Democrats beginning in earnest the campaign to oust him. But neither process is going as planned, reviving Democratic jitters that Trump is somehow not subject to the ordinary laws of politics.
Just how much Joe Biden’s slide plays into this panic — and how much of it is Democrats’ own fault — is arguable. Be sure to read Allahpundit’s analysis of the latest New Hampshire voting to get a grip on the danger facing the anti-Bernie, as it were. Biden has not been in the lead much there, but he’s been fairly constant in the 15-20% window. Bernie has the regional advantage in New Hampshire; the bigger story might be why Elizabeth Warren’s not doing better there. If Biden starts slipping in South Carolina, that might be a bigger problem, but no one expected Biden to dominate in either Iowa or New Hampshire.
That hasn’t prevented the Democratic establishment from freaking out over a possible Sanders nomination. The New York Times’ Elizabeth Bruenig says that “the Democratic Party’s center is panicking,” and for good reason. Sanders threatens to take the party so far to the Left that it might fulfill James Carville’s prediction of a Labourite implosion:
Mr. Biden has run before and lost before, and despite early leads in several important primary polls, he has begun to slip in key states, including Pennsylvania. Worse, Mr. Biden has become entangled in the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump, with Senator Joni Ernst floating the idea of instigating an investigation into the Biden family’s dealings in Ukraine.
Part of Mr. Sanders’s resilience against centrist attacks stems from his grass-roots movement of small donors, organizers and vocal supporters. If party leaders openly assail him, they risk alienating Sanders loyalists, only 53 percent of whom say they will certainly support the Democratic nominee if it isn’t him. The problems at the Iowa caucus have instilled even more rancor and suspicion regarding Democratic institutions among his base. Establishment attacks on Sanders — especially if effective — could result in Mr. Sanders’ base simply staying home in the general election.
Yet if Mr. Sanders’s rise continues unimpeded, the party may risk demoralizing fiscally conservative Democrats, though those voters may be more likely to support a Democrat in the general election no matter what than Mr. Sanders’s passionate backers.
If they attack Mr. Sanders, “they’re going to get a massive backlash, but if they don’t, then they’re going to lose the center of the party,” Jefferson Cowie, a historian of American class politics at Vanderbilt University, told me recently. “It’s a very volatile moment, I think, in the party’s history.”
The five-alarm fire is about more than just Sanders’ polling tenacity, however. If the other candidates cleared the field, Biden would probably garner the lion’s share of delegates in the upcoming contests. Democrats have much bigger problems than the stumbles of a well-known campaign klutz. They have a major credibility problem, in part because they pushed Biden knowing his flaws, in part because of their impeachment push over a picayune issue that ended up making things even worse for Biden, and now because of the epic face-plant in Iowa.
That credibility problem is reflected in the most recent polling numbers for Trump, showing his job approval and re-elect levels at new highs. It’s not a coincidence that this bounce comes at the same time as Democrats’ attempt to remove Trump from office. Their impeachment has backfired on them at least in the short run, as it’s clear that most Americans don’t share in their hair-pulling over Trump’s presidency, even if they’re not particularly fond of Trump in other ways.
It’s the Democrats who appear to be the biggest threat to normalcy these days, not Trump. No matter who wins the nomination, their hysterics over Trump and the entire party’s embrace of radical Leftism and identity politics has undermined their ability to compete. That’s why Trump chose to offer what most Americans would see as normalcy in last night’s State of the Union — as contrast against the Democrats’ serial meltdowns:
Otherwise, the most remarkable aspect of Trump’s State of the Union speech was how it focused entirely on, well … the state of the Union rather than on himself. To be sure, Trump started out with a laundry list of accomplishments by his administration, but that is the normal form for these speeches. Trump also listed out his policy goals for the upcoming year — really more of a campaign agenda — but again, this is the convention for State of the Union addresses. So too are the touching personal stories of the president’s guests, who are invited to highlight specific policy issues and legislative demands. That they did with significant emotional impact, on which presidents have long relied to pressure Congresses to bend to their legislative will.
Surprisingly, Trump refrained from even a mention of impeachment. That possibility had worried some Senate Republicans who fretted that he could upset the delicate balance of negotiations that has taken Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) all the way through to a slam-dunk majority for acquittal. Nor did he attack the Bidens, or even talk about his presidential campaign. He stuck to the script, kept his discipline, and finished out his speech in a conventional and personal finale on the spirit of America and the greatness of the country. “The best is yet to come,” he concluded.
At any other time, perhaps a conventional State of the Union address would simply speak for itself. For this moment, though, it has a greater strategic value than just the normal efforts to push a legislative agenda. Trump’s speech delivered a response to impeachment on a completely different level — and on the House Democrats’ turf, no less.
The only one appearing to act like everything’s under control is Trump, it seems. And it will seem that way to a lot of American voters who are starting to wonder whether Democrats want to derail themselves, at least more so than they want to listen to American voters.